COLLEGE STATION, Texas – A few days prior to the day when millions of Americans will commemorate National Bacon Day, on Dec. 30, meat science officials from Texas A&M Univ. affirmed that the iconic meat is as popular as ever and how pork belly pricing and availability remain stable in the face of global demand shifts for pork.
While consumption of bacon consistently topping 1.1 billion lbs. each year, according to the National Pork Board (NPB), the number of innovative applications for it to be used to enhance the flavor of other foods during all day parts continues to rise. NPB reports that in the past five years, pork bellies appear on the menus of nearly 9 percent of all restaurant menus, representing about a 60 percent increase since 2014. Bacon is served in 70 percent of all restaurants in the US.
The longtime director of Texas A&M’s Rosenthal Meat Science Center, Ray Riley, said the popularity of bacon is alive and well, as evidenced by the undying demand for it at the university’s retail meat store, where it sells products produced during the teaching of meat science-related classes. He says the versatility of bacon is a main reason for its demand extending beyond the breakfast day part.
“It’s because everything tastes better with bacon,” he said.
He said the on-campus store, which regularly stocks a wide variety of cuts, including beef, pork and lamb, is challenged to keep up the growing demand for bacon. “We historically supply the retail store with bacon products based on harvests, which remain the same year after year,” he said. “But now I have to buy pork bellies to supplement our supply in order to have bacon year-round.”
Despite its growing appeal and diverse applications, retail prices for bacon in the US have remained relatively flat during recent years. On average, US retail sliced bacon cost approximately $5.50 per lb. in the month of November, according to US Dept. of Agriculture retail reports. During the same month in 2018 the national average was $5.79 per lb. and $5.70 per lb. in 2017.
Davey Griffin, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service meat specialist, says he’s been amazed by the demand for pork bellies, even during periods when prices have spiked in recent years. “They’ve outpaced every other pork product and become the most valuable cut. Even when we see rises in belly prices, the public takes it in stride because they want their bacon.”
While some news outlets’ headlines warn of a bacon shortage stemming from China’s efforts to replace the protein void created by the devastation of African Swine Fever throughout the country, Griffin said the reports are largely unfounded. He pointed out that supplies of pork in the US are solid, given the record-high levels of pork in cold storage and continued production generated by three new high-volume pork processing plants coming online in the past two years.
As the global and domestic demand for pork plays out, one thing is clear about the reshuffling of the highest-demand pork product, said Griffin.
“It’s interesting that pork bellies didn’t register that high on the list of cuts for so long, and now bacon is king,” he said. “It is hands down the top pork product.”